Dreams of a Life

DIR/WRI: Carol Morley • PRO: Cairo Cannon, James Mitchell • DOP: Mary Farbrother Lynda Hall • ED: Chris Wyatt • DES: Chris Richmond • CAST: Zawe Ashton, Neelam Bakshi, Lee Colley

In January 2006, the skeletal remains of 38-year old Joyce Carol Vincent were discovered in a grim bedsit in Wood Green, London. To the horror of the British public, it emerged that Joyce’s body lay decomposing in her flat for almost three years before she was discovered, with her TV still flickering eerily in the corner. Her discovery ignited a debate in Britain about the deterioration of community spirit and the disconnection of the modern world. The story also inspired director Carol Morley to embark on a project which combined straightforward documentary with dogged detective work, gathering together the fragments of Joyce’s life to create a complete portrait of this enigmatic, forgotten woman who met her death in such desolate circumstances.

Morley’s film avoids straightforward re-construction, instead opting for a more poetic hybrid approach which alternates between a conventional talking heads documentary and a poignant biopic in which Joyce is played by actress Zawe Ashton ( who you may recognise as Vod from C4’s Fresh Meat). Through interviews with the people whose lives Joyce touched in various ways, we slowly collect an impression of a vivacious but elusive personality, a charismatic beauty who seemed to lack the drive and ambition to go with her charismatic and refined manner. In fact, the film does not shy away from criticising some aspects of Joyce’s complex persona – her laziness, for example,  and her apparent inability to envisage a future for herself are remarked upon with trenchant insight by ex-boyfriends, co-workers and housemates. However, watching the way Joyce affected other people, whether negatively or positively, makes the horrible truth of her demise all the more mystifying. It is as if she simply faded out of existence or as one contributor puts it, “melted into the carpet”. Ultimately, the viewer is left with the impression that this enigmatic character was somehow doomed to a sad end – it is striking how little the majority of the contributor’s seem to truly know about her. As she advances into her 30s, we see Joyce’s vague hopes of stardom slowly fall away as grim reality starts to erode her sense of self-worth. The film’s most affecting scene shows Joyce indulging in a moment of fantasy, the frustrated performer singing into a hairbrush in her lonely bedsit before coming abruptly and painfully back to the reality of her isolation and sadness. It’s an incredibly poignant scene, sensitively staged by Morley and wonderfully played by Ashton.

Carol Morley’s film is a superb achievement – a fascinating character study as much as it is a genuinely haunting and moving story of disconnection and the complexity of human relationships. In these days of hyper-connectedness it’s difficult to imagine someone simply fading from view in this manner, and this film is a powerful reminder of the vital importance of maintaining real, human relationships. Dreams of a Life is hugely recommended – a film which will linger in your memory for a long time after you leave the cinema.

Martin Cusack

Dreams of a Life is released on 6th January 2012


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